By Donella Meadows
–August 20, 1987–
“Twenty-fifth of July, plant turnips, wet or dry,” the old-time gardeners say. So on that day I always plant the fall turnip crop. It’s a big planting. I can’t get anybody in the house to eat turnips, but I store them in the root cellar and feed them to the sheep all winter long.
The twenty-fifth of July was dry and hot this year. I was afraid the seeds wouldn’t germinate in the heat, so I sowed them extra thick and watered them down with the hose.
Every last seed came up. I could swear that more came up than I planted. I had a big job getting those turnips thinned down.
Thinning is the only garden chore I dislike. Those thriving baby plants, green and promising, are all trying to fulfill their genetic potential, and I must pull up three-fourths of them and leave them to die in the August sun. I have to grab hold of some hard thing inside myself before I can grab hold of the young turnips. I feel like an imposter god, arbitrarily dealing out life and death.
As I worked down the row this year, I thought of the protests of the right-to-life people against the childrens’ TV program Sesame Street some time ago. Sesame Street had done a segment about thinning marigolds, explaining carefully that plants can’t be cramped. To grow properly they need nutrients and water, light and space, “just like children”.
“Why thin the marigolds and throw them away?” fumed the Pro-Lifers, reading much more into the message than the kids were likely to do. “Why not TRANSPLANT them?”
I smiled at that as I yanked out turnips. If I transplanted all these seedlings, they’d cover my whole farm. It would take months to do the transplanting, and who could use so many turnips?
Of course the protesters were talking about human beings, not marigolds or turnips, and about birth control and abortion, not thinning. They say that practical calculations are fine for turnips, but not for human beings, who are special and precious, to be treasured and nurtured, every last one of them.
That is the position of the Reagan administration, which has worked for seven years to undo government programs in family planning, both domestic and foreign, and to convince all hearers that human population growth can never be a problem. It has been steadily resisted by environmentalists, by aid organizations and, for the most part, by Congress. The battle is emotional and far from over. It is coming to a head now over the nomination to the Supreme Court of Robert Bork, who, if confirmed, will tip the balance of the Court toward the Reagan position.
I sympathize with both sides of this controversy. I also think that each side, untempered by the other, is dangerous.
The Pro-Lifers seem to think of life as a scarce commodity that needs to be protected. But on this planet life is in exuberant abundance. Especially in abundance are seed and young. I don’t have to lift my eyes far beyond the turnip row to contemplate the crabgrass seedlings, the potato bug larvae, the fat lambs in my pasture. They are all capable of taking over the farm and ruining its harmony and productivity, if permitted to reproduce without restraint.
The multiplicative potential of every species, including homo sapiens, is an immense force. Yet one of the great principles of nature is Enough. Only so many turnips can fit in the row and still be healthy, fulfilled turnips. Only so many sheep can graze on the pasture. Whenever I have failed because of softheartedness or busyness to thin the turnips or cull the sheep herd, the result has been spindly turnips, sickly lambs, an eroded pasture.
Human beings are subject to the physical laws of the planet. We can overpopulate and destroy our resource base. Our current numbers are without precedent and still growing rapidly. But I get uneasy when my environmentalist friends compare population growth to a locust plague or an uncontrolled cancer spreading over the face of the earth. I understand their point, but I cringe at their analogies.
The reduction of humanity to statistics, the equation of populations with plagues, can lead well-meaning people to suggest solutions to the population problem that come uncomfortably close to thinning. The environmentalists I know are such softies that, like me, they have trouble pulling up a baby turnip, but when they get theoretical and worked up, they can exude an appalling lack of respect for human beings.
There’s an old saying that the opposite of a great truth is another great truth. Therefore it could be simultaneously true that human beings are both part of nature and something special in nature. We are the only species that can feel love for each other and for all the other species of earth. We are also the only species with the intellect to control our numbers voluntarily in a way that respects both the preciousness of each individual and the limits of the planet.
We haven’t yet figured out how to do that. But we have a chance to pull it off as long as both the idea of Enough and the idea of the sanctity of life are vigorously represented in our society. Neither should be permitted to overpower or silence the other.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987